epic shotgun firing in the sky with birds

Shotguns History & Guide

Shotguns pack a powerful punch. They’re trusted by hunters, sportsmen, soldiers, and folks who prioritize self-defense. These heavy hitters mean business. This guide offers all you need to know about shotguns – their origins, functions, types, and how to choose the best one for your needs.

History of Shotguns

The Mighty Shotgun: A Journey Through Time

concept of the moment the first shotgun was invented

Year/Time PeriodKey Moment
14th-17th CenturyIntroduction of “fowling pieces” used mainly for bird hunting, the early form of shotguns.
19th CenturyIntroduction of breech-loading shotguns, which load from the rear, replacing muzzle-loaders.
1873Introduction of the first successful hammerless shotgun by Charles Lancaster.
Late 19th CenturyDevelopment of the pump-action shotgun, which became popular in the U.S.
Early 20th CenturyAdvancements in semi-automatic shotgun designs, improving their reliability.
Mid-20th CenturyIntroduction of more powerful shotgun ammo types like buckshot and slugs, expanding the use of shotguns beyond hunting.
Late 20th – Early 21st CenturyEvolution of tactical shotguns designed specifically for law enforcement and military use, such as the Benelli M4.
Present DayOngoing innovations in shotgun design and technology for improved performance in various fields, from hunting and sport shooting to military and home defense applications.

14th-17th Century

 14th to 17th century scene depicting the introduction of fowling pieces or early shotguns
Hunters shooting “fowling pieces”, or early shotguns

The shotgun’s story begins centuries ago. The first versions, known as “fowling pieces”, were crude, yet effective tools for hunting birds. They had a single, smoothbore barrel that blasted a spray of lead pellets, making it easier to hit fast-moving targets in the air.

18th Century

detailed image of a blunderbuss from the 18th century
A blunderbuss from the 18th century

Then came the ‘blunderbuss’, a predecessor of the modern shotgun. With a broad, flared muzzle, it was loaded with shot and used primarily for self-defense in the close quarters of the 18th century.

19th Century


As we moved into the 19th century, shotguns began to evolve. The invention of the percussion cap, followed by the cartridge, made shotguns more reliable and easier to load. These developments coincided with the growing popularity of bird hunting as a sport among the upper classes, especially in Britain.

During the American Civil War, shotguns were used in combat by both sides, and their effectiveness in close combat situations became evident. From then on, their presence on the battlefield only grew.

20th Century


In the 20th century, the shotgun truly came into its own. Advances in manufacturing and materials led to more durable, reliable shotguns. Pump-action and semi-automatic models were introduced, providing higher rates of fire.

21st Century


Today, shotguns are incredibly versatile. Hunters use them to hunt waterfowl, small game, and even big game with slugs. They’re a favorite in shooting sports like trap, skeet, and sporting clays. Militaries and law enforcement agencies worldwide rely on them for their ability to deliver heavy firepower at close ranges. And, of course, many people keep a trusty shotgun at home for self-defense.

So, there you have it – the humble shotgun, from “fowling piece” to modern powerhouse. Whether you’re a history buff or a shotgun enthusiast, there’s no denying the rich legacy and continuing evolution of this impressive firearm.

For an even deeper dive into the evolution of shotguns, check out Jack O’Connor’s ‘The Shotgun Book’ for a comprehensive resource offers a wealth of information about the historical development and variations of shotguns.

What’s your favorite period in shotgun history? Share your thoughts with us!

Types of Shotguns

Like a well-oiled toolbox, the world of shotguns offers you the right tool for any job. Each shotgun type serves a distinct purpose and offers unique advantages.

For those new to the shotgun scene, the pump-action serves as a great introduction. It’s versatile, budget-friendly, and widely available. But that’s just one of many options.

Here’s a rundown of different shotguns to help you find the perfect fit:

Shotgun TypeDescriptionCommon Uses
Single Shot (Break Action) ShotgunSimple yet effective, this break-open shotgun can hold one round at a time. Ideal for those who prefer precision over volume.Perfect for hunting and beginner target practice.
Pump-Action ShotgunA tried-and-true choice, the pump-action shotgun provides reliability at a reasonable price. It requires manual action to eject and load shells.Ideal for hunting, sport shooting, and home defense.
Semi-Automatic Shotgun (Auto-Loader)This shotgun offers speed and ease, automatically ejecting and loading shells with each trigger pull. Just be cautious with mixed ammo types.Excellent for hunting, sport shooting, and home defense.
Over-Under Double Barrel Shotgun (Break Action)A more premium option, this shotgun hosts one barrel above the other. It breaks open to hold two rounds.Suitable for hunting and sport shooting, especially trap and skeet.
Side-by-Side Double Barrel Shotgun (Break Action)A design rooted in tradition, it has two barrels next to each other and holds two rounds.Perfect for hunting, sport shooting, and cowboy action shooting.
Bolt-Action ShotgunThis less common shotgun is loaded and unloaded using a bolt mechanism, similar to a bolt-action rifle.Good for hunting and some sport shooting.
Sawed-Off Shotgun* (Short-Barreled)A modified shotgun with a shortened barrel for better maneuverability, but be aware of varying legal statuses.Typically used for home defense and, interestingly enough, movie props.

*The legal status of sawed-off shotguns varies significantly depending on location and it’s important to note that these types of shotguns are regulated under the National Firearms Act (NFA) in the United States. It’s essential to check local laws and regulations before considering such a firearm. For more information about the NFA, you can visit the official website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives here.

So, what’s your shotgun of choice? Pump-action or semi-auto? Maybe a classic double-barrel? Let’s hear it.

Best Shotguns for Home Defense

When it comes to home defense, you want a reliable, maneuverable, and easy-to-use firearm. Shotguns meet all these requirements, offering intimidating stopping power while remaining user-friendly. Below are some shotguns that have gained reputation as effective home defense tools. While shotguns are only a part of a comprehensive home defense plan, choosing the right one can provide peace of mind.

Shotgun ModelDescriptionFeatures
Remington 870 Express TacticalA well-loved and reliable pump-action shotgun with a strong following among home defenders.12-gauge, 6+1 capacity, 18.5″ barrel
Mossberg 500 TacticalKnown for its durability, this pump-action shotgun offers various tactical features.12-gauge, 8-round capacity, 20″ barrel
Mossberg 590A1An upgraded version of the Mossberg 500, this pump-action shotgun is trusted by the military and law enforcement.12-gauge, 9-round capacity, 20″ barrel
Benelli M4A semi-automatic shotgun known for its exceptional reliability and durability. Used by the military.12-gauge, 5+1 capacity, 18.5″ barrel
Kel-Tec KSGA unique, bullpup-style pump-action shotgun with a large capacity and compact design.12-gauge, 14+1 capacity, 18.5″ barrel

Best Shotguns for Hunting

Hunting requires a firearm that combines power, precision, and usability. Whether you’re chasing waterfowl, upland birds, or large game, the right shotgun can enhance your hunting experience. Here are some highly-regarded models for various types of hunting. Your choice will depend on the game you’re after, your hunting style, and your personal comfort with the firearm.

Shotgun ModelDescriptionFeaturesBest For
Remington 870 WingmasterA reliable and versatile pump-action shotgun known for its smooth action.12-gauge, 28″ barrel, 4+1 capacityWaterfowl, Upland Birds
Mossberg 500 All-Purpose FieldKnown for durability and versatility, this pump-action shotgun is a good all-rounder.12-gauge, 28″ barrel, 5+1 capacityGeneral Hunting
Benelli Super Black Eagle 3A semi-automatic shotgun lauded for its reliability and ability to handle different types of ammo.12-gauge, 26″ or 28″ barrel, 3+1 capacityWaterfowl, Large Game
Browning BPS Field CompositeA sturdy and reliable pump-action shotgun with bottom loading and ejection.12-gauge, 28″ barrel, 4+1 capacityWaterfowl, Upland Birds
Beretta A400 Xtreme PlusA semi-automatic shotgun known for its shooting comfort and durability.12-gauge, 28″ barrel, 3+1 capacityWaterfowl, Large Game

Best Shotguns for Competitive Shooting Sports

Competitive shooting sports demand accuracy, consistency, and smooth operation. Your shotgun should support quick target acquisition, a balanced swing, and have a comfortable recoil. Here are some of the top-performing shotguns often seen in the hands of competitive shooters. They’re chosen for their excellent balance, manageable recoil, and smooth performance.

Shotgun ModelDescriptionFeaturesBest For
Beretta 686 Silver Pigeon IAn over-under shotgun known for its balance and smooth swing.12-gauge, 30″ barrel, 2-round capacitySkeet, Trap
Browning Citori CXSA versatile over-under shotgun designed to perform in any shooting discipline.12-gauge, 32″ barrel, 2-round capacitySkeet, Trap, Sporting Clays
Remington 1100 Competition SyntheticA reliable semi-automatic shotgun with a reputation for high performance in the competition world.12-gauge, 30″ barrel, 4+1 capacitySporting Clays
Benelli SuperSportA semi-automatic shotgun famous for its speed, reliability, and function.12-gauge, 30″ barrel, 4+1 capacitySkeet, Sporting Clays
Krieghoff K-80A high-end over-under shotgun praised for its customizability and superior performance.12-gauge, 30″ or 32″ barrel, 2-round capacitySkeet, Trap, Sporting Clays

Shotgun Ammo

Shotguns use two main types of ammo: ‘slugs’ and ‘shot’.

Slugs are hefty pellets that deliver a punch, while ‘shot’ consists of many small pellets for swiftly hitting smaller targets.

The ammo’s size, or ‘gauge’, also impacts its performance. Bigger gauges like 12-gauge or 10-gauge hit hard, but also pack a significant recoil. What’s your ammo of choice?

Ammo TypeCommon Sizes (Diameter)Common Uses
BirdshotNo. 9 (0.08″), No. 6 (0.11″), No. 4 (0.13″)Hunting birds, small game, target shooting
BuckshotNo. 4 (0.24″), No. 1 (0.30″), 00 (“double-aught,” 0.33″)Hunting large game, self-defense
SlugsTypically 0.69″ – 0.73″ (for 12-gauge)Hunting large game, self-defense, target shooting
Sabot SlugsTypically 0.50″ (for 12-gauge)Big game hunting at longer ranges
Frangible SlugsVariesHome defense, minimizing risk of over-penetration
Incendiary Rounds (e.g., Dragon’s Breath)Standard 12-gaugeNovelty, signaling, very limited self-defense applications
Other Specialty RoundsVariesVarious – includes less-lethal options, signaling, breaching, etc.

Here’s some more in-depth information on each type of ammunition:

  • Birdshot: As the name suggests, this type of ammunition is primarily used for hunting birds and other small game. The high number of small pellets makes it easier to hit a moving target.
  • Buckshot: This is a larger type of shot that’s used for hunting bigger game like deer (hence the name “buckshot”). It’s also commonly used for self-defense because it can stop an intruder effectively without over-penetrating and risking collateral damage.
  • Slugs: A slug is a single, solid projectile that can deliver a lot of force to a target. Slugs can be effective for hunting large game at medium distances, and they’re also commonly used for self-defense.
  • Sabot Slugs: A sabot slug is designed to be fired from a rifled shotgun barrel. The slug is smaller in diameter than the barrel, and it’s encased in a “sabot” that falls away once it leaves the barrel. Sabot slugs are more accurate and can be fired at higher velocities than regular slugs, making them effective for big game hunting at longer ranges.
  • Frangible Slugs: Frangible slugs are designed to break apart upon impact. This minimizes the risk of over-penetration, which can be especially important in home defense situations where there’s a risk of hitting something or someone beyond the intended target.
  • Specialty Rounds: There are a variety of specialty shotgun rounds available, ranging from less-lethal options like rubber bullets and beanbag rounds to signaling flares and breaching rounds designed to blast open locked doors. The specific use will depend on the type of round.
  • Incendiary Rounds: Incendiary shotgun rounds, such as Dragon’s Breath, are designed to ignite upon firing. When shot, these rounds emit a flame and sparks, similar to a flamethrower. Despite their dramatic appearance, incendiary rounds have limited practical uses but can serve as signaling devices or, in some situations, for self-defense. They pose a significant fire risk and are considered pyrotechnics, meaning their purchase and use may be regulated or prohibited in some areas. Always verify local laws before purchasing or using incendiary rounds and ensure your shotgun is capable of safely firing them.

Maintaining Your Shotgun: A Must for Safety and Longevity

Your shotgun deserves care. Regular cleaning, proper storage, and routine checks all contribute to its durability and dependability. Safety is paramount – treat your shotgun as if it’s loaded, keep the muzzle in a safe direction, and engage the safety when not in use. Have any shotgun maintenance tips to share?

For a deeper guide to shotgun maintenance check out The Gun Digest Book of Shotguns Assembly/Disassembly” by Kevin Muramatsu (affiliate link).

Shotgun Buying Guide

Investing in the Best Shotgun

When it’s time to buy your shotgun, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. You must consider its intended use, how comfortable it feels, and your budget. Testing different models at a shooting range can give you invaluable firsthand experience.

Here’s a summary of what you need to think about and some top tips to guide your decision-making:

  • Purpose: What do you need the shotgun for? Hunting, sport shooting, or home defense? Your purpose will greatly influence the type and features of the shotgun you should buy.
  • Fit & Comfort: Don’t overlook how the shotgun feels in your hands and against your shoulder. The length of pull (distance from the trigger to the end of the gun’s buttstock) can affect your comfort and shooting accuracy. Handle different shotguns before deciding.
  • Budget: Your budget is going to play a significant role in your options. Some shotguns are quite affordable, while others, particularly those with advanced features, can be more expensive. Remember to factor in the ongoing cost of ammunition and maintenance.
  • Try Before You Buy: If you can, visit a shooting range that allows you to test different models. This can give you a feel for how each shotgun performs, how it fits, and whether you can manage its recoil.
  • Research: Once you’ve determined your needs, start researching models and read reviews. Some popular models include the Remington Model 870, the Mossberg 500, and the Beretta 686 Silver Pigeon I.
  • Ammunition: Shotguns come in various bore sizes, or gauges. The most common is the 12-gauge, which is suitable for many uses. If you prefer a lighter gun with less recoil, consider the 20-gauge.

Ultimately, the best shotgun is the one that meets your needs and fits you well. Now equipped with insights about shotguns, you’re ready to make a well-informed choice.

What’s your favorite shotgun? We’d love to hear from you!


More Resources

National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF): If you’re interested in diving deeper into any aspect of shotguns – their history, the different types of ammo, maintenance best practices, or making the best buying decision – the NSSF is an excellent resource. This organization provides in-depth guides, safety information, and further historical context that could be beneficial for both beginners and seasoned shotgun users.